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Review: Wussy’s Ragged Ohio Racket Hits Biblical Proportions on ‘Forever Sounds’

8
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: March 4, 2016
Label: Shake It
Jason Gubbels // February 29, 2016

As one of American indie’s premier songwriting projects, Cincinnati-based five-piece Wussy have set high standards of consistency over their decade-and-change career, patiently amassing a hefty songbook courtesy of head writers/guitar wranglers Lisa Walker and Chuck Cleaver, even while slowly widening their national profile through extensive road shows. Attica! was generally acclaimed as the band’s “breakthrough” in 2014 a slightly odd designation, given the four unimpeachable albums preceding it, no matter the general uptick in media coverage and good press.

But Attica! was inarguably one of Wussy’s richest and most melodically generous offerings, as fine a way as any for previously unaware consumers to swoon over what the band’s modestly sized yet rabid cult had adored since 2005. And two years later, the band has returned the favor to their expanded audience with Forever Sounds, an effort that is by nearly all measures noisier, rougher, and weirder than what has come before, hurtling headlong into live-in-the-studio plugged-in jams while bidding farewell (for now) to the mandolins and accordions that have graced at least a track or two on each previous studio turn. Leave your acoustic at home for this one.

With longtime producer and Afghan Whig John Curley amicably swapped out for the duo team of Jerri Queen and John Hoffman, even the ballads on Forever Sounds have been subsumed into the electric din. With a sprawl belying its succinct 38 minutes, the album drifts happily amid the dark psychedelia first exhumed on 2014’s “Rainbows and Butterflies” and indulges in grime-swamped vocal processing at nearly every turn. The low end’s been cranked, too, with Mark Messerly’s bass swallowed whole into the band’s interior, while John Erhardt’s pedal steel fleshes out the already impervious guitar section.

Consequently, the band’s list of sonic signposts continues to grow. If Attica! unleashed an I.R.S.-era R.E.M. sheen on “To the Lightning,” Forever Sounds kicks off by mainlining late-’90s shoegaze swirl, roiling feedback and garage drone punctuating a hazy melody murmured by a particularly waifish-sounding Lisa Walker, all while Chuck Cleaver bellows from the distant background about sucking on snakebites. Rivaling just about anything else in their catalog for sheer soundwave density, the Wizard of Oz-winking wall o’ noize “Dropping Houses” suggests Walker and Cleaver spent the last year or so dusting off their old My Bloody Valentine and Ride records.

If Neil Young’s always been an unavoidable comparison point for the band given Cleaver’s eerie Neil-like higher register, the admiration previously translated into exquisite Walker ballads like “Halloween,” a distant melodic cousin to “After the Gold Rush.” Forever Sounds chooses to embrace the weary electricity of Young’s 1975 bad-vibes fest Tonight’s the Night: Cleaver unleashing an Old Black-worthy solo bristling with feedback shards on “She’s Killed Hundreds,” and Erhardt’s reverb-drenched pedal steel woozily soaring between the mesas on “Donny’s Death Scene,” an “Albuquerque”-channeling lament for The Big Lebowksi’s Donny Kerabatsos. (And, no, really, it’s a stupendous achievement the ever-resourceful Walker continues to work miracles with unlikely material, transforming the demise of the bumbling surfer/bowler into a bit of Academy ratio myth-making worthy of John Ford). The musical generosity continues: celestial shimmer on “Hello, I’m a Ghost,” autumn-sweater comfort on “Better Days,” and the kandy-kolored romp that is “Sidewalk Sale,” in which chili dogs and Boone’s Farm swill jostle placentas onto the floor.

Wussy’s songs of romantic strife and the heart’s travails have tended to garner the most critical ink, hardly surprising since Chuck and Lisa have proven so damned good at honing in on the kinds of small observations any wounded lover can relate to: yellow cotton dresses waiting to be filled out, trails of breadcrumbs winding towards somebody’s door. And Forever Sounds supplies a steady stream of dispatches from bewildered observers along love’s front lines, as embodied by the wounded narrator of “Hello, I’m a Ghost” (“I can be any damn thing that I want / So, hello, I’m a ghost”), who does the brutal math on two years of separation  “You’ve undressed 700 more times, and I’ve missed every one.”

But the great underlying theme of so many Wussy songs is religion. Not that Walker/Cleaver spend much time exploring the specifics of spirituality, or even unpacking the subconscious unease of lapsed believers. They seem far more interested in detailing the vestigial remains of holy-ghost terrors, the ways religious language and constructs permeate an Ohio/Indiana landscape  anti-abortion billboards pocketing the roadways, “He Is Risen” pamphlets slipped onto doorknobs, Sunday gatherings of holy rollers and Job’s Daughters. Religious vocabulary cloaks every dialogue, sinners always darting just out of an angry God’s reach: “Rapture isn’t what I thought it would be,” “Heavenly hosts give up the ghosts,” “Rock of ages, cleft for me.”

Forever Sounds continues this emphasis on doctrinal morbidity and mortality, with “If Jesus saves, he’d better run” leading to one particularly juicy Cleaver couplet: “The afterlife is unattractive when it smiles / But it pays you compliments and brings you flowers.” True to form, Walker pulls out all the stops on the hypnotic “Hand of God,” a breathless recitation of Old Testament horrors in all their splendor: fiery truths and righteous arms, Dante’s seventh circle of hell and a “mercy seat” unrelated to Nick Cave’s electric chair. (Walker’s referring to the atonement piece topping the Ark of the Covenant; knows her stuff). We’ve come a long way from Terre Haute and sidewalk sale chili dogs  or have we?

You can parse these clues until the nephilim rise again, or just bask in the word-candy and reverb. The distinct pleasures of Forever Sounds remain those of all five preceding Wussy albums a crack songwriting duo detailing adult life’s ambiguities with vivid language amid a terrific rhythm section’s unapologetic alt-slop. They’ve retained their love of six-string grandeur even while continuing to plumb the depths of victories that aren’t so much hollow as qualified. Like throwing your own parade and hoping someone just might roll with you. Or quietly insisting against all available evidence that “these are the better days,” then immediately allowing, “…or not.”